Encore: Great Cranks and Curiosities of the Washington Monument

The Washingon Monument in 1860, photographed by Matthew Brady

The Washingon Monument in 1860, photographed by Matthew Brady


“Hello!” said a Chicago man as he stood near the Washington Monument. “That’s a pretty good elevator shaft. I wonder when they are going to put up the rest of the building?” Youth’s Companion  Saginaw [MI] News 12 July 1893: p. 3  

The Washington Monument reopened 12 May 2014 after being closed since a 2011 earthquake in which the structure was badly damaged. It seemed appropriate to revisit this look at some of the curiosities and cranks associated with the monument.

We all know the Washington Monument, that iconic and well-loved symbol of our nation’s capital which appears on DC souvenir plates, in Congressional bids for re-election, and attacked by lasers and flying saucers in disaster movies. But the obelisk was not always so popular.

Its history exemplifies design by committee. Various commissions were formed to oversee its construction, which began in 1848, but committees squabbled over policies and design; the money ran out, requiring repeated public appeals; the structure was found to have unstable foundations; and there were political controversies over donated stones (another post, another day). Construction was halted in 1854. Then the Civil War broke out. The half-finished pillar was seen as an eyesore and a national embarrassment. Proposals were made that the structure be dynamited—out of respect for the memory of the Father of our Country. Building resumed in 1876 and the obelisk, the tallest stone structure in the world (a hair over 555 feet), was dedicated in 1885.

While the White House attracted an interesting collection of “cranks,” as we saw in a previous post,  the Washington Monument has its own file of eccentrics and visionaries. And rather than fussing about patent models and Civil Service appointments, the Monument’s fans seemed to have higher aspirations.


The Project of a Crank to Leap From the Top of the Washington Monument.

“Did you ever leap from a very high place, and do you know what the sensation is during the passage?”

This was asked by a middle-aged man, who, with hundreds of others, was wandering through the monument grounds a few days ago.

I replied that I had no such experience, writes a Washington correspondent of the New York Sun.

“Then you have something to learn,” he said. “Have I had it? Yes, but I am not satisfied. I intend to jump from the top of that monument. It’s more than 550 feet high they say. I never leaped from a higher place than 110 or 120 feet. It was from the mast of a vessel. I don’t know exactly how many feet it was. Did it hurt me? No, not a great deal. I struck feet foremost in the water and went under. I don’t know how far, but a good ways, for they had time to reach me after I came up, a little dazed, but amply paid by the delights of the sensation during the passage. I knew a man who jumped from a higher place and was so much injured that he died; but he didn’t understand it, and struck hard on the water. It requires skill and coolness to do the thing rightly…. I have been looking a good while for a place to take a great leap, and have traveled a long distance to survey the monument with the view to jumping off. The distance from the top would give plenty of opportunity for enjoying the sensation of falling a greater distance than any man has ever fallen.”

“But you would be killed and never relate your experience or enjoy an instant’s recollection of the sensation.” “Yes, that’s true, perhaps, but I would have all the delight while I was falling, just the same. That’s what I want. It would compensate me. We all strive for pleasures which have an ending after a longer or shorter time. I fancy that the intensity is proportioned always to the distance, Don’t you?”

The man’s earnestness increased, and he assumed an air of mystery. He resumed:

“But I may not be killed. Indeed, I don’t mean to be…I’ve got a contrivance, simple as an umbrella, and easy as a cane to carry, which sprung at the right instant will land me like a bird, whose wings let it come down from any height in perfect safety. I have never used it, but I believe it will work. If it don’t it will matter little. I will have the supreme pleasure of jumping from the monument, and in the passage to the earth experience the most delightful sensations that man ever had.”

That the man was upset in his mind was evident. I encouraged him to proceed, remarking that as the monument was about completed he might be deprived of the coveted opportunity to make the leap. He said:

“I was detained on the way. I intended to make the leap about the last thing before the workmen left the top. I was there in time for it, but could not get the chance. My idea was to have Gen. Casey employ me in some capacity that would take me to the top, and at the last moment make the leap in sight of the assembled multitude. But the general said he had no use for me, and declined to give me the necessary permit to go up as a visitor. But I shall do it yet. I’ll find a way. It is not to immortalize myself, or anything of that kind that I have in view, but solely the ecstasy of the fall of 550 feet to the earth—saving the few feet after I have spread my contrivance for letting me down easy, or, as I have said, to the utter extinction of vitality which would otherwise ensue. Gen. Casey will miss a great opportunity if he don’t jump off, as his concluding act in the construction. It would be an immense feat. If the last man on the outside when he removes the last stick of the scaffolding, instead of crawling through the opening to come down inside, don’t jump, he will be a fool.

I suggested that the Capitol dome would be a great place to practice at leaping.

“No,” said he, “it wouldn’t do at all. I’ve examined it. There are too many obstacles. It’s the sheer leap of 550 feet that will give the sensations I want to enjoy. It is ten or twelve minutes to be hoisted up inside of the monument. I would expect to come down in less than half a minute. Think what would be crowded into that brief space of time—the satisfaction, the ecstasy of falling from such a height! It will be the same thing…whether I light like a bird or am crushed into a jelly.

To the question when he intended to take the leap, he said: “I mean to do it on dedication day, Feb. 22. I will find a way by that time. Once on the top, and those openings not stopped, I am sure to make the leap. If I have to wait ten years I will do it. I was born to do it. What greater thing is there in this world? It’s my mission. If I don’t do it,” and here the man drew near, and in a low voice, with strange deliberation added—“If they won’t let me, I will blow up the monument with dynamite. I’ve got it ready. I know the opening where a charge can be placed that will bring the monument down to the last stone. The work of thirty-five years will tumble to the ground in five seconds. It’s the sensation I seek—the sensation of the leap from the monument’s top. If I am deprived of that I’ll have the satisfaction of seeing the monument come down. That will be the next best thing to the leap. I’ll do it! I’ll do it! Aha!”

At that the man made off at a rapid pace, and I have not seen him since… Kansas City [MO] Star 18 December 1884: p. 1 


A Crank Resists Temptation at the Washington Monument.

[Washington Post]

Washington is the Mecca of cranks, and the monument seems to be their principal shrine. Even the White House is not so attractive to them as the great white shaft. It can be seen for miles around, and seems to attract cranks as a candle does months. The watchmen have become accustomed to the gentry, and as long as they appear to be quiet and well disposed, usually deal gently with them, however wild their ideas. One man they tell of declared that the monument was built of human skulls and bones and persisted in pointing out the faces of friends in the stones; but perhaps the oddest specimen on record happened down there the other day.

When the watchman first observed him he was leaning heavily against the shaft, apparently pushing with all his might—at least he would push for a while and then he would walk around to the other side, apparently to see if there were any people there. The watchman watched this proceeding for a while and then accosted him:

“Beg pardon; you aren’t going to push it over, are you?”

“I could if I wanted to,” responded the man; then, with dry dignity. “My name is Samson.” “O, the strong man,” ventured the watchman, sizing up the man, who was about 5 feet 5, and not apparently very muscular. “Let me see, you were down at Kernan’s theater a few weeks ago, weren’t you?” “No, sir!” replied the man sternly. “I am the reincarnated Samson of the Biblical times; the one who overthrew the Philistines, slaying thousands with the jaw bone of an ass, and afterward pulling down the pillars of the temple. Why, it would be mere child’s play for me to upset this puny monument.”

“Well, I wouldn’t do it if I were you,” expostulated the watchman, mildly. “You see this is in memory of Washington; probably you have never heard of him, as he was a little after your time; but we moderns think a good deal of him. Then it cost the government a good deal of money and took a good many years to build this monument; and a good many people would consider it unkind of you to destroy it. Take me, for instance, I am hired to watch it, and, of course you would throw me out of a job. Besides, you might hurt somebody.” “No, I was very careful to look on the other side first,” said the man. “But perhaps you think I can’t do it? Now you just look up and see me shake it.” The watchman was agreeable. Now, it is a fact that when one stands directly at the base of the monument is appears to be toppling over. This is of course an optical delusion, caused by the clouds moving overheads; but it impressed the crank with his power.

“Did you see me shake it?” he inquired triumphantly.

“Yes,” responded the watchman, solemnly, “but I wouldn’t do so any more. You might weaken the foundations even if you didn’t push it over. Besides, here comes a crowd of people, and not knowing who you are, they might laugh at you. Then you would have to push it over to prove it to them.” “That’s so,” said the crank, and, bidding the watchman “Good day,” he departed, and has not been seen about the monument since. Kansas City [MO] Times 3 December 1894: p. 8

This article gives a good overview of the lesser cranks of the Monument—at least the ones with no super-powers. 


The Washington Monument is an Attraction for Them.


All Sorts of Things Imagined About the Tall Gray Shaft.

Ignorance of Sane Visitors is Sometimes More Astonishing Than the Fanciful Theories of the Weak-Minded Individuals.

Many Illusions.

From the Washington Post.

Washington is truly the Mecca of the crank. He comes here from all quarters of this broad land, and indeed he often comes from further shores beyond. When he strikes America he makes for Washington, and when he strikes Washington, if indications prove anything, he seems to make for the Washington Monument. The watchmen there have ample opportunity to watch the vagaries of the visitors and tell numerous stories of the confidences that have been reposed in them.

One of the commonest illusions under which the eccentric class of visitors’ labor is that the huge structure is unsafe and in imminent danger of falling. This idea may be generated on the ground, and will present itself to the sanest visitor who will stand close under the wall and look up when clouds are driving over the top. The whole mass of stone seems to be rushing madly over, and the first impulse of the steadiest nerved is to jump out of the way.

Several aerial experimenters have expressed a wish to jump from the top of the pile with a parachute, but the constant vigilance of the watchmen prevents the carrying up of any sort of flying machine, and the man has not yet been found who is fool enough to want to jump without the aid of some antidote, as it were, to the attraction of gravitation. [The author obviously had not interviewed the fall-fetishist of the first article.]

Speculation is always rife among the country visitors as to the effect of a foreign invasion as to the stability of the shaft, and whether it would not be one of the first marks of the guns of the bugbear hostile fleet that the papers send periodically sailing up the Potomac to levy tribute on the nation’s capital.

Others still are anxious of the safety of the structure from the malignity of the dynamiters of various sorts, bred by the modern social conditions, and at the time of the Chicago Haymarket riots there was one old gentleman of not very muscular appearance who came down religiously for several evenings and spent the night on the terrace with the avowed intention of protecting the shaft from molestation at all hazards…

But of all the cranks that have made their pilgrimage to the monument, the most remarkable made her appearance some weeks ago. She was first noticed by Custodian Hawkins down in the keeper’s lodge, standing with her arm about the miniature shaft on exhibition there. She kissed the painted top and whispered endearing names to the model, but when she went on up to the big structure itself she was not so well pleased. She walked around and ran her hands over the stone, murmuring “Terrible, terrible!” and when the watchman came round she asked him if he didn’t think it was awful.

The watchman didn’t know exactly, but being a polite official, said he guessed it was, and wanted to know her idea of it. Then, sinking her voice to a confidential tone, she informed him that the whole monument was built of dead people. How many millions of them she did not know, but in proof of their numbers she pointed out the numberless shining flecks through the crystalline marble, saying that each one was a soul that had been sacrificed in the work.

The watchman being a mild-mannered personage was naturally horrified to find what a huge charnel house he had been attending all these years, and asked what proof his visitor had of her ghoulish assertions. Such doubting was too much for her, and with a look of scorn the lady turned on her heel, saying that most of the victims were her friends and she surely might be allowed to recognize them. That was a clincher and ended the argument.

Among the sane visitors to the monument the ignorance sometimes displayed is found to be almost as astonishing as the fanciful theories of the cranks. A remarkably large proportion of the country folk who see the shaft for the first time are as ignorant of its real purpose as though it had been built in memory of the Ptolemies and were covered all over with Chaldaic inscriptions.

There is a belief of widespread prevalence that the monument was erected to the memory of Garfield, and again, many of the down-South darkies insist that it is the Lincoln and not the Washington Monument, and that ascribing it to the honor of the Father of his Country is cheating their liberator out of his just dues.

Another of the general illusions is that the monument is a lighthouse, and some of the visitors are much disgusted after traveling all the way to the top to find no lantern there. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 15 August 1892: p. 7

Those disappointed visitors would have found their lights while the earthquake- damaged Monument was being repaired–the Monument was covered in a “light installation.”

While I do not wish to label suicides “cranks,” some mention must be made of self-destruction at the Monument. Wherever you have tall, iconic structures, you have suicides, but surprisingly, despite the zeal of the proto-base-jumper in the first article, only five suicides have occurred in the Monument: three down the interior elevator shaft, and two from windows near the top. 

The first suicide at the Monument was in 1915 when Mrs. Mae Cockerill of Covington, Kentucky threw herself down the elevator shaft, breaking every bone in her body. She had come to consult a “nerve specialist” in Washington, as she was severely depressed. The doctor did not give her any help or hope and she decided to end it all. She carried a note for her husband explaining that since she could not get well, she did not want to go on being a burden to him. [SOURCE: Evening Star [Washington DC] 24 February 1915: p. 3]

 In 1926, two men jumped from the Monument in quick succession.

 Ex-Soldier Leaps From Washington Monument

Washington, Saturday, Nov. 20 Despite extra precautions to prevent suicides at the Washington Monument, Henry Anderson, an inmate of the Soldiers’ Home here [a veteran of the Spanish-American War], killed himself today by crawling through the iron grating at the top of the shaft and leaping to the pavement more than five hundred feet below. Seattle [WA] Daily Times 20 November 1926: p. 4  

Another Man Leaps to Death.

Washington, Nov. 22. For the second time in sixty hours the Washington Monument was the scene today of a suicide. B. Ward crawled through the iron bars at a window near the top of the structure and jumped 500 feet to the pavement. A similar leap was taken Saturday morning by an inmate of the soldiers’ hospital here. Officials are planning to reinforce the gratings placed at the windows several years ago.  Richmond [VA] Times Dispatch 23 November 1926: p. 1 

It is astonishing that, if the gratings could be gotten round, there were not more jumpers, although there were attendants on guard.  While the death toll in the Monument proper was only five, at least one other suicide occurred in close proximity.  

Sergeant John A. Miller of Battery C., United States Artillery, committed suicide on Saturday in the Washington Monument lot by putting his pistol to his head, pulling the trigger with the thumb, and killing himself instantly. Times [Troy, NY] 2 August 1883: p. 2  

There is also an account of unusual animal deaths at the Monument:


Strange Visitors Who Have Climbed the Washington Monument to Meet Death.

The Washington Republican says that several queer incidents have occurred on the top of the Great Washington Monument. On one occasion a gaunt and hungry cat ascended the winding stairs to the summit. It probably took her twenty-four hours to make the ascent. Upon reaching the top she looked wildly about for a moment, and probably becoming frightened at the workmen and the noise they made, she ran to the edge and sprang off. During the descent the poor animal turned rapidly like a whirligig, but landed on the ground on all fours. Remarkable as it may seem, the cat was not killed by the fall, but after collecting her sense for a minute she started to run away. A large dog spied her at this juncture, and quickly killed the feline heroine of the greatest aerial trip on record.  Last season five rats climbed up the stairs to the top at different times to get the crumbs from the workmen’s lunches. The men chased them around in each instance until they sprang off. These little animals were not so lucky as the cat. They were crushed into shapeless masses by the fall ….Salt Lake [UT] Tribune 24 July 1884: p. 6 

You’ll also find an account of the many birds slaughtered by the shaft here.

I think my favorite Washington Monument crank was this man, touchingly anxious to do the right thing by his late wife. 


Queer Tale of a Crank

Wanted to Scatter Them from Washington Monument.

From the Pittsburg Dispatch.

Gen. John M. Wilson, Chief of Engineers, United States Army, was sitting in his office in the War Department the other day when a person of very dubious aspect appeared in the doorway. It was a man, with clothing tattered and torn, a two weeks’ beard, and carrying an ordinary tomato can in his hand. A tramp, obviously; the tomato can, accepted as the emblem of Weary Willy in the comic papers, seemed to settle it. But the General is accessible to people of all ranks and conditions, and he bade the stranger walk in and tell his business.

“I’m in hard luck,” said the man, sitting down on the edge of a chair. As he did so he placed the tomato can on a corner of the Gen. Wilson’s desk.

The General assented, as much as to say that the confession was no surprise to him.

“I’ve been carrying this here can around for two weeks,” added the stranger, indicating the receptacle with his thumb.

“Indeed,” said the General, raising his eyebrows slightly.

“It contains the remains of my deceased wife,” the man continued, wiping one eye with the frayed tail of his coat. “She was cremated a fortnight back.”

“You don’t say so,” said the General, this time really surprised, and looking doubtfully at the tin can, as if he wished it somewhere else than on his desk.

“Fact, sir,” replied the stranger. “And her last request was that her remains should be disposed of in a genteel manner. I couldn’t’ afford an urn. You know one can have an urn at the crematory, but it’s awfully expensive. So I brought ‘em away in this can, and I’ve been carrying ‘em around for two weeks for want of knowin’ what to do with ‘em. Now, I’ve decided, and I’ve come to ask for a permit.”

“A permit for what?” asked the General.

“To chuck ‘em from the top of the Washington monument,” said the man, “and scatter ‘em to the four winds of heaven. That would be rather genteel, don’t you think?”

“I suppose it would,” assented the General with a gasp.

“They told me I’d have to come to you for a permit,” explained the stranger.

“No, sir,” responded Gen. Wilson, decidedly. “You can get no such permit here. The Washington Monument is not intended for burial purposes. Good day, sir.” The general said afterward. “Why, there was nothing in the world to prevent the man from scattering a bucketful of ashes from the monument if he wanted to do so. But if I granted a permit for such a thing, cranks from all over the country would be coming here to distribute the remains of their relatives from the top of the marble shaft. It would never do, indeed.” Wheeling [WV] Register 25 September 1897: p. 6 

We finish with a modest proposal for the Monument by a man who could, in all fairness, be described as a “crank,” H.L. Mencken. In an essay about the malice of beaten presidential candidates, he wrote:  

Let us have a Constitutional amendment providing that every unsuccessful aspirant for the Presidency, on the day his triumphant rival is inaugurated, shall be hauled to the top of the Washington Monument and there shot, poisoned, stabbed, strangled, and disemboweled and his carcass thrown into the Potomac.

I expect we could wipe out the national deficit if this policy was in place and available on C-SPAN Pay-per-View.

Any other monumental cranks? Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.

Mrs Daffodil tells of a strange fashion note associated with the Monument.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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